‘Sophie and Zoe at the End of the World’, Rebecca Buchanan

Illustrations © 2014 Robin E. Kaplan

 [ Goodbye, Mom, © 2014 Robin E. Kaplan ] Ma usually cried when she watched the news. Not this morning.

She turned off the tv a little after ten; the static always gave her a headache, but she watched anyway. She carefully set the remote on the end table, and moved the black-and-white cat off her lap. Pushing herself off the couch, she announced, “Well, I guess that’s it, then.”

I followed her down the hallway to the bedroom, lingering in the doorway as she disappeared into the bathroom. The tabby came running out at her intrusion and rubbed up against my leg. The creak of the medicine cabinet. She came back a moment later, fingers lightly curled around a green bottle. It had a red cap and bright purple tape sealing it shut. Garish.

Her hands shook a bit as she ripped open the tape. Not fear, I knew, but hypoglycemia. Not like anyone was manufacturing insulin anymore; why bother? Off came the cap and she tipped the two black pills into her palm. One, two, into her mouth, and it was done, just like that.

She kicked off her shoes and laid back against the pillows. She flicked at her skirts, arranging them in neat folds. “Keep the door closed so that cats don’t get to me,” she instructed. When I didn’t answer she lifted her head from the pillow. “You hear me, Sophie?”

I nodded. Cleared my throat. “I’m just—I’m gonna go see Zoe. In a bit.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Ma dropped her head back down onto the pillow. Her words were beginning to slur and slide. Her breathing grew shallow. “She’s leaving’ t’day, in’t she?” Ma swallowed, breath catching. “Mother’d terrible taste, but Zoe knew the good shtufff…”

One breath, two, still, gone.

I picked up the tabby, hugging him tight. He mewled in protest. “Sorry,” I whispered, but didn’t let him go. Casting one last glance at Ma’s still form, I pulled the bedroom door closed. The tabby mewled again as I made my way back down the hallway to the living room.

The grandfather clock gonged. Already ten-thirty. I dumped the cat on the couch, where he curled up next to his buddy. Zoe would be leaving soon. I didn’t have much time.

I found the heavy canvas backpack in the box of camping supplies in the garage. After the grocery stores started to run low on food and the neighbors raided our garden, we’d had to dig into the box for MREs. There were only a few packs of fiesta chicken and powdered soup left. I grabbed those, too, in case Zoe might need them. After she woke up.

In the living room, I paused before the wall of bookcases, the bag dangling at my side. Ma and Zoe and I had spent ten years trolling library sales and garage sales and used book stores, looking for the best stuff, the weird, wonderful stories—“literary salvage ops,” Zoe called them. I studied the shelves now, hunting the best and weirdest and most wonderful of them all.

I started with the picture books, gently pulling out a stained copy of The Epic of Alexandra by Dorothy Dayton. I ran my fingers over the cover and down the spine, inhaling the scent of chalk dust and erasers. The first day of kindergarten, Zoe had spotted me hiding the book under my desk while Mr. Applethwaite droned on about addition and subtraction. She didn’t tell on me—but she did sit next to me on the bus ride home and insist that I share. I hugged the book, then set it gently in the bag. Peter Brown’s The Curious Garden, Imogene’s Antlers by Small, Jay Williams’ The Practical Princess, and Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess followed.

I raided our science fiction collection next. My hand hovered, finally settling on the battered copy of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Varley’s Wizard and Piercy’s He, She and It and Russ’s The Female Man followed, tumbling into the bag. I shook the canvas sack to get them to lay flat. I impulsively added an Octavia Butler collection, Delaney’s Trouble on Triton and the Vonnegut omnibus, and moved on to the poetry shelves.

I bypassed all the classics—Homer, Sappho, Dante, Rumi—they would already have been packed away and shipped out to the facility by the government; the safe stuff. No. I needed the poems no one else would dare to take along, the weird renegade rebel verses. The thinking poetry. The Dickinson omnibus; yes. It thunked as it landed in the bag. The tabby meowed in irritation. Diving Into the Wreck; yes, Rich was another must. Thunk. I hesitated over Ariel, ultimately bypassing it in favor of Valente’s A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects; Zoe found that for me at a library sale for my twelfth birthday. I sniffed the cover, inhaling deeply. Thunk. Parallel french-english editions of Wittig’s Les Guérillères and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. The illustrated Walk Now In Beauty by Canan and the beat up hardcover edition of Kennedy’s The Witch’s Dictionary.

The bag was getting heavy.

I moved on to the philosophy books. Again, I skipped the classics, the safe status quo stuff. Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own went in the bag. Tucker’s Liberty. A scarred hardcover edition of the Collected Works of Voltairine de Cleyre. A near-pristine edition of Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom, which Zoe and I had found at a garage sale just a few months ago… People seemed to want to get rid of stuff, now. We’d traded a small bag of fresh peppers straight from the backyard for the book.

The clock gonged again. Eleven. Hurry.

I made a quick pass through the remaining book cases. Grimm’s Grimmest; none of that bowdlerized crap for me and Ma and Zoe. Pullman’s His Dark Materials omnibus, Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, Silko’s Ceremony, Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, and—I couldn’t resist—Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Dillard.

I tied the bag closed and snapped the flap shut. I left the door to the garage open, whistling for the cats. They ignored me until they heard the rattle of their food bucket. They wove between my legs while I mixed in a few teaspoons of rat poison. I set their bowls down, scratched their ears good-bye, and left them purring.

Staggering under the weight of the bag, I hefted it onto my back, pulling the straps tight across my chest. Inside, I heard the clock strike eleven-thirty. I grabbed my bike, tipping it upright, and flicked the garage door button. I glanced up. Streaks of odd-colored lightning flickered high in the atmosphere.

I clambered onto the bike, not bothering to close the garage door behind me. Wobbling, I found my balance. Pedaling hard, I tore down the street. Passed the abandoned cars and houses with yellow tape across the front doors. I could smell smoke. A sharp right. A dog raced up, barking madly and snapping. I wobbled again. I kicked at the dog and pedaled harder. Shallow left and down a steep hill. The dog fell behind, still barking. Applying the squealing brakes, I wove in and out and around cars and trash cans and trucks and debris. The street finally cleared out at the bottom of the hill. A functional car roared passed me, horn blaring.

I shot an obscene gesture at the driver and headed left. Zoe’s house sat on the right side, five doors down.

A parade of vehicles had just pulled up in front. A big fancy bus, the windows darkened. Four jeeps filled with men in fatigues, rifles sticking over their shoulders, pistols at their hips, helmets on their heads. They clambered out of the jeeps, circling the bus, eyes wary. In the front lawn, near the curb: Zoe. Her mom. Her dad. Her brother Kyle, hugging a black suitcase covered in football team stickers. As I drew closer, I saw the bright white, laminated social security cards carefully pinned to each of their jackets. Curtains flickered in the windows of some of the neighboring houses.

The brakes squeaked as I slowed, turned into a driveway and onto the sidewalk. Zoe’s head whipped around, her long black pig tails flying. She was wearing the navy blue ribbons I bought her for her tenth birthday; they were stained and tattered from constant wear.

“Sophie!” She dropped her bag and dashed over, passed the glaring soldiers.

 [ First Last Kiss, © 2014 Robin E. Kaplan ] Her mother reached for her, hissing. “Zoe! Zoe, get back here!” Her father picked up her bag and stepped towards the bus, ignoring us.

I dropped the bike and she threw her arms around me. She smelled of blueberries and cream. I inhaled deeply, holding the scent in my lungs. Her breasts pushed against mine, and I tightened my arms around her back, feeling the sweep of her shoulder blades. Her laminated social security card poked my collar bone.

“I was so afraid you wouldn’t make it,” she whispered against my neck. “I was afraid they would take us away and I wouldn’t get to say good-bye.”

“I’m here, I’m here.” My voice caught and I had to swallow. “I’m here. I brought—um—” I pulled away a bit and she dropped her arms, taking my hands “—I brought the books. I grabbed what I could…” My voice trailed off as she smiled at me, dimples appearing on either side of her mouth. Her eyes crinkled. She raised her right hand, pinky out and slightly bent. I matched her gesture, wrapping my finger around hers and for one moment, one sweet moment, it was just us.

“Zoe!” her mother hissed again, stamping her foot. “We are leaving! Get over here!”

The dimples disappeared and Zoe’s mouth twisted into a grimace. Over her shoulder, I saw her father climb into the bus, dragging her little brother by the hand. Kyle got off a half-wave before he disappeared inside.

I unclipped the straps and pulled the canvas bag off my back. It thumped to the ground between us. “I brought what I could,” I repeated, babbling. “Ma wasn’t—Ma couldn’t help me pick.” Zoe’s eyes widened, then darkened with grief. Her fingers tangled through mine, around the straps. “So, I grabbed the best. I hope you like them.”

“Dickinson? Grimm?”

I nodded, trying to smile. “Dayton, too.”

She grinned, crying. “I traded for some Wonder Woman comics and snuck them into the bottom of Kyle’s bag.”

I could feel my nose running. “Oh, geez, your Mom’ll hate that.”

We giggled.

“Zoe!” Her mother was yelling now, impatient and embarrassed.

One of the soldiers came over. “Miss, we really do need to leave. The train’ll go with or without you.”

Zoe didn’t answer, just nodded. I wiggled my hands free as she grabbed the straps and slung the backpack over one shoulder. She almost fell over. She couldn’t let go so I cupped her face in both hands and kissed her. Our first and last kiss. She tasted like tart blueberries.

“Zoe!” her mother shrieked.

I slowly released her mouth, dropped my hands and stepped back. My heels banged into the bike. She was crying. I took another half step back, crossing my arms over my chest.

The soldier touched her shoulder, slowly turning her around. With his free hand, he tipped his hat at me. One step, then another, then another, away from me, the soldier following along beside her, his hand on her shoulder. Eyes red and furious, her mother shot me one more poisonous glare and then stormed onto the bus. Zoe stalled at the bottom of the steps and the soldier gave her a bit of a push. One step up, two, gone.

The soldiers clambered back into their jeeps, the doors hissed shut, and the bus rumbled to life. A plume of grayish exhaust and the parade took off down the street. I watched until it reached the intersection far, far down the road and turned right, vanishing.

An hour or so to the train station, to one of the few functional platforms. Five hours to a black spot on the map in the middle of the mountains. A few more hours to check in, carefully lock away their possessions, and then sleep. A long sleep, long enough for the storms to pass and the sun to calm and the planet to heal.

I bent and set the bike upright. She would dream of me, as I would dream of her in those last moments as I lay down next to Ma and swallowed those two black pills.

© 2014 Rebecca Buchanan

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